Blue River II
Bowers Road to Shemak Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A meandering Driftless trout stream that offers a scenic and exciting daytrip for the intermediate paddler. With a little patience and some cooperation by Mother Nature to provide several days of moderate rain (or snow melt), padders are rewarded with a unique and intimate experience on a swift and splashy river dotted with massive boulders, rock outcrops and steep valleys.
June 14, 2020
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈5′ per mile
Platte River: ht/ft: 4.6 | cfs: 200
Black Earth Creek: ht/ft: 2.6 | cfs: 80
Gauge note: Both of these are correlation gauges and are offered only as approximate metrics, since there is no gauge for the Blue River.
These levels are just below recommended. Going into this trip, we felt that we’d have enough water based on our earlier 2018 visit; however, we definitely could have used a few more inches of water. 5′(+) on the Platte and 3′(+) on Black Earth Creek would be more ideal correlations.
Bowers Road, Centerville, Wisconsin
Shemak Road, north of Snow Bottoms State Natural Area
Time: Put in at 12:15p. Out at 2:50p.
Total Time: 2h 35m
Miles Paddled: 6.25
Bald eagles, blue heron and muskrats. And of course, plenty of cows.
For starters, this is a supplementary write-up to the longer stretch of the Blue River reported on in May of 2018. I see no need to rehash the masterpiece of a novel that is Tim Bauer’s assessment of the Blue River, so this is intended to add color commentary and my perspective as a newbie to the Blue River.
The second item of business is to give credit where credit is due. As evident in many posts about the rivers of southwestern Wisconsin, paddlers are not fans of barbed wire or electric wires strung across rivers. However, we understand the predicament that farmers face with the terrain in the driftless and land availability for grazing. So, without further hesitation…. a HUGE THANK YOU to the farmers who graze cattle along this stretch of the Blue River. The farmer(s) on this stretch are using the best practices we’ve seen and we hope that your practices catch on. The farmers along the Blue are doing many items 100% spot on:
1) Using the white ribbon ‘tape’ instead of barb wire. The ¾” wide tape is highly visible and is not sharp or dangerous like barbed wire. Similarly, we’ve had some bad encounters with the fine ‘string wire’ because it is so difficult to see (unless flagged) and judging the distance as we approach it plays tricks on the eyes.
2) The ‘tape’ wire is high enough to coast under without the need for lifting the tape; with the Y-er of course. I say that as the guy who created the Y-er and still recommends that you bring one with you to lift the tape if the need arises. The ‘tape’ is at a height that is good for ‘normal’ water levels so all bets are off if the river is high.
3) The ‘tape’ wire is pulled pretty tight so it is not sagging in the middle. This allows the paddler to pick the best spot in the river to follow the natural current and coast under the wire.
Again, thank you to all of the farmers who are sharing the river with us and helping to keep everyone on two and four legs safe.
The trip starts out at Bowers Road at a State Natural Area where the parking and lawn area is plentiful, however, the access to the river itself was significantly less than ideal for us. We were challenged to find a safe launching spot while dodging wild parsnip and using the mass of a canoe to knock down the weeds and tall grass. Access at the bridge wasn’t an option due to the height of the banks and lack of rock so we had to scout the best launch location and just go for it. I’ll note that having a pair of pants solely for trampling through weeds to/from a river is always a good idea. The take-out at Shemak Road was considerably better since it is a highly used fishing area so a path to the river is evident and the weeds are well-managed. Additionally, access to the river isn’t bad and the footing was fair.
The river feels much more like a stream than river and it meanders much more than I had anticipated. On most rivers in the Driftless region, erosion smoothes out tight bends and constantly changes the river after heavy rains. On the Blue, the DNR has done a tremendous amount of work shoring up the banks of the river with rocks to narrow it and keep the Class 2 trout stream flowing at a steady pace while aerating the water. As a result, I would recommend a short recreational kayak which is highly maneuverable since it felt like we were constantly turning and riding the outside corner of a bend along the rock lined shore. That said, it’s possible for a very skilled canoeist to tackle this stretch of the Blue. Personally, I found that my 10.5′ kayak did quite well and was well matched with the river (with the skeg up).
As mentioned, the correlational water level of the Platte River was at 4.6′ so we felt that the green light was on for the Blue. However, I would now say that the green light should have been a blinking yellow; proceed with caution but proceed since the day was beautiful and it worked into the weekend plans. I say ‘blinking yellow’ because we did scrape a lot. In comparison, I scraped more on this trip in higher than normal water levels than I would on the Little Platte at normal water levels. Many times I found myself wishing that I would have brought my cheap Menards Viper kayak instead of my nice Wilderness Aspire. My paddling companions on this trip didn’t have nearly the bumpy ride since one was in his canoe which has more surface area and sits higher in the water and the other kayaker weighs significantly less than I; the result is that my kayak sitting lower in the water added many new scrapes to my boat. Throughout the trip, I probably got hung up 4-5 times and once got spun around on a rock (hence the 360 degree panoramic in the video which was not intentional by the way).
The previous trip report beautifully describes the essence of the Blue River and the surrounding landscape. To pick up on where Tim left off, the Blue River is a trout stream and you can feel that while you are paddling it. The work that the DNR and/or other groups have done to preserve the river for fish/wildlife and water quality is commendable and impressive. I was surprised by the extent that the river shores are lined with rock in so many different areas to ensure the viability of this Class 2 trout stream. Especially at the beginning of the trip, it felt like we were paddling in a park because of the rock shores and the freshly planted grasses still filling in. The extent of the DNR ‘landscaping’ of the river definitely keeps the water moving at a good clip and keeps the riffles vibrant. Add on top of it the boulder gardens and the surrounding hillside of the Driftless region and the whole trip is truly unique and distinct from other paddling trips in the area.
During our trip we were fortunate to encounter only one downed tree that required moderate pruning and a subsequent portage. The trusty loppers (aka “Cindy”) made pretty quick work out of the tree; however, by the time we were finished cutting a path it was just as easy for us to portage the tree and tight turn since we were already out of our boats, wet and muddy. We encountered three other locations that we were able to weasel ourselves through. Note to our canoeing friends, weaseling deadfall is much easier in a kayak than in a canoe, sort of like parking a subcompact car at a Packer game instead of a station wagon.
What we liked:
The landscape is simply beautiful and the vastness of the hills, valleys, cliffs, rock outcrops and boulders are all felt from this very intimate river. In one way you feel quite large in your boat on such a small ‘river/stream’ but then you look at the vastness of the hills around and you feel put back in your place.
Even though this trip may be on the shorter side at 6.25 miles it feels longer because of all of the twists and turns. At the same time, the current, tight bends, rocks, riffles and obstacles will keep you on your toes and help exercise your boat control skills.
This may be a first in Miles Paddled site history, but I’m going to throw this out there. We also liked the fact that the farmer(s) in this area are doing an exceptional job to keep paddlers safe with their fencing practices. Again, giving credit where credit is due, we raise(d) a cold one to you.
What we didn’t like:
I would say that we didn’t like visiting Scrape City more than a few times. This is a hard one to write because the river is a great paddle but having just a few more inches of water would be freakin’ amazing. Again, if you have an older boat that you can bring that is highly maneuverable, I would choose that one. I’d also recommend bringing a car with existing door dings to the Wal-Mart parking lot instead of your brand new ride; same principle.
If we did this trip again:
We’ll definitely do this trip again, but will look to the correlational gauges to be even higher. Over 5′ on the Platte would be my local target. I’d recommend to anyone considering this trip to bring a boat with the flattest bottom that you have which sits the highest in the water and not packing heavy (minus the required hydration items).
Miles Paddled Video:
Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video:
Friends of Miles Paddled Video: